Tell us about yourself

Ritu Karidhal’s routine is pretty much like any working mother – she packs a tiffin box for her kids in the morning and is off to work. She comes home in the evening and helps them out with their homework. Pretty routine, we’d say, with just one exception. Ritu is an aerospace engineer and was a deputy director to the Mars Orbiter Mission or Mangalyaan, launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation.

Original Link : https://www.wired.com/2017/03/these-scientists-sent-a-rocket-to-mars-for-less-than-it-cost-to-make-the-martian/

What do you do?

The average distance between Earth and Mars is 225 million kilometers. This means that a signal from the Mars orbiter takes 12 minutes to arrive at ground control. Twelve excruciating minutes before you potentially know something is wrong, and another 12 endless minutes before your command to correct it reaches the orbiter. If your orbiter is on the brink of disaster, that 24-minute turnaround will probably be fatal.

That’s why a Mars orbiter requires an ability to operate fully autonomously. With every space mission, ISRO’s team of scientists are building their capabilities. The 2007 mission to the Moon built their capability to leave Earth’s gravity. The Mars mission would have to add to that an autonomous software system, advanced enough to diagnose and self-correct any problem that outer space could come up with.

Mission designer Ritu Karidhal led the design and development of this system. “It is like the human brain. It receives signals from sensors like your eyes, ears, nerve endings. If there is a problem anywhere in your body, your brain reacts immediately. That is what we had to build for the orbiter in ten months from scratch. We had to take each element —sensors, activators, motors—and understand how it may behave or misbehave.”

When Ritu first became interested in space she didn’t quite realize it would be so technical. Then again, she was only three years old. “I used to ask why the moon was growing bigger and smaller. I would look at the darkness and wonder what lay beyond it,” Ritu recalls. “I thought space science was just about astronomy, watching stars. In reality, it’s very technical work.”

 Nineteen years ago, Ritu left her hometown of Lucknow, India and moved across the country to become a scientist. “It wasn’t an easy decision to make but my parents always supported me,” she says.

On launch day in November 2013, those dreams met reality as Ritu stared at the monitors in the mission control room. Her autonomous system was destined for the ultimate test.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

Born and brought up in Lucknow, Ritu always knew she wanted to get into the ‘space sciences’, as she put it. She spent hours every day on the terrace, sometimes studying her books, sometimes studying the stars. “I have always had a fascination for mysteries of outer space, and knew that’s what I wanted to get into,” she said. “At that time, ISRO was my only option to get into that field, so I kept tabs on ISRO and their activities through the newspaper all through my childhood.”

Ritu grew up in a close-knit middle class family that placed a lot of emphasis on education. “We are two brothers and two sisters,” she began. “My father worked in defense services. My parents were my driving force though. We didn’t have too many resources and back then, we certainly didn’t have tuitions or coaching institutions. We had to be self-motivated to succeed.”

When the time came for Ritu to choose her field of calling, she knew without hesitation what it was to be. She cleared the GATE exam for admission into IISc for her Masters in Aerospace Engineering and from there it was but one step for admission into ISRO. “That was the best moment of my life – getting a call from ISRO. It was like everything I had before was all for that one moment.”

How was ISRO?

That was the year 1997, when more and more women were choosing to balance career and domestic life. Many had gradually begun foraying into fields that were traditionally a male bastion – space science was one too. But Ritu swears by the working ethos at ISRO. “There weren’t too many women in ISRO when I joined, I agree. But I was never treated differently because of my gender. Within the scientists community here, the only thing that matters is how much work you put in and what is the quality of your work.”

Mangalyaan came as a surprise to her. “We had just finished a project and suddenly without warning we were plunged headlong into the next one,” she said with a laugh. “But this was to be the most exciting project I had worked on so far.”

Mangalyaan or launch of a space craft to orbit planet Mars may be the most stellar space project done by ISRO. Not only did it make India the fourth country in the world to reach Mars, but it was done flat out in 10 months time and at far lesser cost to the taxpayers than anybody else – only 450 crores. There are scams and swindles in the country, which have amounted to atleast three times the cost of Mangalyaan.

What was your role?

And Ritu played a pivotal role in its making. What exactly it was is something that only Ritu can explain in her own words. “My job was to conceptualise and ensure the execution of the craft’s onward autonomy system,” she said. “That’s basically the brain of the satellite, a software system coded in well enough to function on its own, determine what and when to detach, anything that needs to be infracted. If there’s malfunction, the system needs to be designed well enough to correct and recover on its own in outer space.”

“I was also the deputy operations director,” she added. “So I had to ensure that it was all executed without any flaw or anomaly. When it comes to launching spacecrafts, the slightest anomaly can spell disaster, especially in the case of maneouvers and mars orbit insertions, so every single detail had to be thoroughly vetted.”

It was all very exciting for Ritu, but it was also the most gruelling 10 months of her life. “I would come home at the usual time and sit with my children for their homework. And later in the night, between 12 and 4 AM I would resume my office work,” she said. “My husband was extremely supportive of it all. My children took a while to understand why their mom was suddenly so busy, because they were too young. My son, who was 10 years old then, understood when I explained the importance of the project; my daughter was five years old then, but eventually she too got it. I spent some time each morning in doing puja and that helped me stay positive. It went on very well indeed.”

It got more gruelling as launch day came closer, but Ritu was too caught up in the storm of what was happening to feel nervous or tired. “When you have something so exciting on this scale, there is no room in your mind for anything else,” she said. “Mental endurance takes over physical strength. I went without sleep for two to three days because I did not want to miss anything. And it was only after the launch and excitement was over that the waves of exhaustion come crashing over me.”

The launch mission though, changed her life in more ways than one. “Suddenly I was doing a lot of public interactions,” said Ritu with a smile. “I even got invited for a TedX talk.” TEDxGateway, is an independently organized TED Conference whose 6th edition will be taking place in Mumbai on December 5.

“At colleges where I was scheduled to talk, students would crowd around me excitedly to ask questions and I was so happy to see their enthusiasm on the subject. My relatives, who until then, never paid any attention to my job, suddenly wanted to know more about it. My children were so excited that they told everybody in their school that their mom was a part of that project. But best of all was when my son came to me told me, ‘Mom, I am proud of you’,” she gushed.

For Ritu, that moment of the launch would forever be imprinted in her memory, would forever be something she would relive over and over again. “It was unexplainable…this huge sense of contentment,” she explained. “The whole country was looking at you and suddenly what you expected of it didn’t matter anymore. What mattered was what the country expected out of it and it was so much bigger. And to see it all get realised in front of your eye is unforgettable, truly!”